Bielema adds 22 in first signing class at Arkansas

New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema walked into Wednesday’s signing

day news conference wearing a sweat suit and flip flops, hardly

looking like a coach worried about last-minute recruiting

drama.

Twenty-two names of prep standouts were on the recruiting board

to Bielema’s right, all having already sent in their national

letters of intent. It was the empty 23rd spot that held all the

suspense.

That spot was reserved for one of Bielema’s top targets, running

back Alex Collins, who verbally committed to the Razorbacks on

Monday night. The Florida standout canceled a news conference early

Wednesday at which he was expected to sign with Arkansas, and he

had still not signed with the school by late afternoon.

Bielema couldn’t comment directly on Collins because he had yet

to sign, but he did say he hoped the recruiting class would ”grow

by one in the next 24 hours.” The former Wisconsin coach also did

his best to go with the flow on a day that has become anything but

predictable.

”It’s national signing day,” Bielema said. ”You’re going to

get surprises, good and bad. You’re going to get curveballs thrown

at you that you have to adjust to. The thing that’s neat about the

signing period is this: It’s a day when you have to adjust and

adapt. There (are) things that are going to come up.”

With or without Collins, Bielema had nothing but praise for the

class he and his new staff with the Razorbacks put together since

his hiring on Dec. 4. The group included some of the state’s top

prospects and a host of offensive linemen – with the intent on

quickly rebounding from a 4-8 season marred by last spring’s firing

of coach Bobby Petrino.

The class was ranked No. 26 by Rivals.com, 12th in the

ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. It included a national,

and international, feel – with signees from as far away as Hawaii,

New Jersey and even a punter from Australia.

Three of the signees, without Collins, were from Florida – a

recruiting hotbed Bielema often targeted while with the Badgers. It

was also an area very familiar for Arkansas linebackers coach Randy

Shannon, who previously was the head coach at Miami for four

seasons.

”We kind of just built this recruiting class off of past

relationships, not only with recruits but also with high school

coaches throughout the country,” Bielema said. ”So, it was really

a culmination today of a lot of different scenarios, a lot of

different stories working together to get to where we are.”

Five of the Razorbacks signees came from the junior-college

ranks as Bielema looked for immediate improvement for a team that

was last in the SEC in pass defense last season, allowing 285.8

yards per game through the air. They included safety Tiquention

Coleman and cornerback Carroll Washington, who like the other

junior-college transfers are already enrolled and will go through

spring practice.

Another transfer, Johnathan McClure, was one of four offensive

linemen signed by Arkansas – an area of desperate need. The

Razorbacks were last in the SEC in rushing offense last season,

averaging just 118.7 yards per game on the ground, but Bielema

expects several in the group to compete for immediate playing

time.

Arkansas had plenty of help in securing its class from a handful

of in-state signees who committed to the school even following

Petrino’s firing and throughout the transition between interim

coach John L. Smith and Bielema.

One of those was quarterback Austin Allen, one of three players

to sign with the Razorbacks from neighboring Fayetteville High

School. Allen and teammates Brooks Ellis, a linebacker, and Alex

Brignoni, a safety, each worked tirelessly to build bonds with many

of their fellow recruits on official visits – a move that paid off

in the form of tight end Hunter Henry and offensive guard Reeve

Koehler, among others.

Henry, listed as the 4th-best tight end in the country by

Rivals, committed to Arkansas in July. The Little Rock standout

admitted to wavering during the difficult season for the

Razorbacks, especially while waiting on the announcement of who the

long-term head coach would be, and he said schools such as Alabama,

Vanderbilt and Georgia continued to recruit him throughout.

Bielema’s first phone call after being introduced as Arkansas’

coach was to Henry, a move that paid off.

”I needed to make sure whoever the staff was the right fit for

me, and if it wasn’t, then I needed to go somewhere else,” Henry

said. ”But everything worked out in the end, and I feel like

everything’s falling into place now.”

Allen, who was also recruited by Oklahoma State, Mississippi,

Vanderbilt and Tennessee, also said Bielema’s ”laid-back”

approach was a key factor in his decision to stick with Arkansas –

where his older brother, Brandon, already is already a quarterback

and his father, Bobby, is the school’s director of high school

operations.

”Once I met (Bielema), it was a big relief,” Austin Allen

said. ”He was in flip-flops and had reggae music on, so I felt

comfortable with him and it was a fun time.”

Arkansas had a difficult time recruiting while facing an

uncertain future under Smith. With Bielema and his staff on board,

however, the class came together quickly – even with Wednesday’s

bit of suspense surrounding Collins.

”I think (this class) is absolutely amazing,” Razorbacks

offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. ”It truly is. We got in

there, I don’t know when it was, about the middle of December, and

we hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since.”